God and natural selection, hand in hand

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Bill Dembski has a post up about Roger Ebert’s review of Spielberg’s new adaptation of War of the Worlds. It’s actually Jim Emerson’s review on rogerebert.suntimes.com, but whatever. (Roger Ebert, unlike everyone else, didn’t like the movie – he let his inner scientific nit-picker take over on this one). Emerson gets in some good gratuitous jabs at ID, which Ebert himself has done in the past.

Anyhow, the movie is very much worth seeing, and the review is worth reading. As everyone knows, what dooms the aliens in The War of the Worlds is microbial disease, to which the aliens have no resistance (feel free to do the scientific nitpick on this, I would be interested in opinions). What I found striking about the conclusion of the movie (which also struck Emerson) was the voiceover by Morgan Freeman, which is basically a very strong statement of theistic evolution. I can’t find a transcript of the movie version, but here is H.G. Wells’s original version, from an online e-text of War of the Worlds:

In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians – dead! – slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things – taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many – those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance – our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain. H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds

There you have it, God and natural selection, hand in hand versus the aliens.

Somewhere or other, probably a creationist, I had gotten the mistaken notion that H.G. Wells was a vehement materialist/atheist. A little googling reveals that he was a student of agnostic T.H. Huxley and was a big fan of evolution, but in 1917 Wells wrote a book entitled God the Invisible King where he apparently argues for a non-trinitarian theistic view.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

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A chunk of narration near the end of Wells' War of the Worlds has always bothered me. That same chunk of narration of Spielberg's War of the Worlds bothers me even more. I haven't read Wells in years, but as Read More

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Who cares? It is only a movie. I can’t understand why the creationist’s, especially the ID’ers, take works of fiction so seriously. A few years back Skeptic Magazine had an article about an ID creationist conference where the Clint Eastwood movie “High Plains Drifter” was analyzed in great detail by an ID’er with way too much time on his hands. Geesh!!! I guess that since they don’t do any science, they have plenty of time to review fiction/movies.

One of the things that is lost in the new War of the Worlds is the aspect that the aliens defeat was bought about through divine action. In the time that Wells wrote the original, there wasn’t a good understanding about how microbes evolved or how they caused infections. It naturally seemed like Gods action, even if somewhat indirect, to save humanity and to defeat the invading martians. Today, with modern understanding, that aspect of the War of the Worlds has been lost IMO. Which is kind of a shame, because that is one of the points that I think H.G. Wells was wanting to make to begin with.

Well, I remember that “God” is left in the Morgan Freeman voiceover, while the bit about natural selection is cut (although it is implied).

Yipes, Jim Emerson has evolution/ID on the brain:

Any movie is a highly evolved and complex synthetic organism, the result of weeks or years of labor, and the product of chance and circumstance as well as artistic vision. By the time it reaches its final form in the marketplace (only to be superseded by the further revised DVD version a few months later), it has been through countless evolutionary phases, the result of thousands upon thousands of conscious and unconscious decisions by hundreds upon hundreds of people. In some cases, there’s an Intelligent Designer at work (usually the director, but sometimes the producer or the writer or an actor or studio executives, and generally a combination of them all), but even the greatest filmmakers are hardly omniscient or infallible.

Movies are also the product of innumerable unforeseen spontaneous mutations - accidents, mistakes, oversights, coincidences, and circumstances either propitious or adverse. Weather, personality clashes, personnel changes, scheduling limitations, health problems, labor disputes, disagreements over the endlessly rewritten screenplay (or the set design or a performance), budget battles, footage that doesn’t cut together … all of these things and many, many more affect the eventual state of the film that you see. In that sense, a finished movie is more like a snapshot - a fixed image of an evolving form at a particular moment in its arrested lifespan.

I think the take-home message should be, “Humans don’t rule planet Earth. If you want to take the planet for your own consumption, talk to the things in charge.”

I can’t speak at all to Wells’ views on evolution, but I did see the movie, and I didn’t think as much of it as many others seem to. It struck me as just another summer blockbuster with nothing particularly wonderful to make it stand out, though I did like the special effects.

I picked up on the creationist aroma of the voiceover at the end of the film, but by that point I had already decided that it wasn’t a very good movie. Adding that bit of narration at the end was merely the fly perched on the feces, if you will.

When I was a kid I read the book (I had one of those boxed HG Wells sets), listened to replays of Orson Wells’ radio show, and even enjoyed the very cheesy 1950s movie with the not very threatening alien deathrays inspired by streetlights.

May the god of good literary and movie taste forgive me, but I loved them all, and loved this movie too, in all its great effects and crappy science (even in the original there’s no microbes on Mars!—jeez!—I never forgave HG Wells for that). Orson Wells is still the only person who’s ever really taken this concept to a higher level. Oh, and the chick movie side of our crowd really liked the relationship between Tom Cruise and the little girl, even though they’re all diehard “Save Katie” fans. Okay, I thought it was good too.

In case it wasn’t obvious to you, this is Spielberg’s post-9/11 Iraq War movie. It starts with a book report on the French occupation of Algeria, moves on to some hummus eating, then has the crazy-but-could-be-right guy (Tim Robbins no less) screaming at us that occupations never work. I’m sure that there’s more in there that I missed.

If you want to see a really exquisite but not-well-enough-known movie with the French occupation of Algeria as a backdrop, watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) starring a very young and very captivating Catherine Deneuve.

Hint: Read the book. You would be better off.

Dave Cerutti Wrote:

I think the take-home message should be, “Humans don’t rule planet Earth. If you want to take the planet for your own consumption, talk to the things in charge.”

Make sure we include that in the next data squirt we send out to the universe via SETI.

I had the impression to the H. G. Wells was a hard-core atheist. He was certainly a strong Marxist. Between that and the claims that he was an atheist, I was guilty of just assuming.

The idea that bacteria killed the invaders might be interesting and surprising in 1898, when maybe few people realized microbes even existed, but it is just plain stupid in 2005. This ruined the whole movie for me. The aliens were supposed to be technologically more advanced than mankind, they plained the invasion for maybe milions of years, so how is it they don’t know about basic biology? WTF?

The aliens were supposed to be technologically more advanced than mankind, they plained the invasion for maybe milions of years, so how is it they don’t know about basic biology?

Maybe the aliens were creationists.

I suppose, since these are in the public domain, it would be good to actually present the old time radio version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in MP3 format. http://www.strobelite.net/MP3s/WOTW.mp3

Also, while I’m at it, there was a radio interview with both H. G. Wells and Orson Welles that took place two years after the original broadcast. This might help put some of this in historical context. http://www.strobelite.net/MP3s/Interview.mp3

Finally, some writers decided to build a little comedy/sci-fi play around the radio show. I present: Orson the Alien! http://www.strobelite.net/MP3s/Orso[…]e_Alien_.mp3

This was a good movie if you could ignore:

1) the improbable plot line (the aliens have attacked cities and so, our heroes, decide to journey to another city); 2) the senseless and unexplained events (aliens are spraying human blood around the planet); 3) the premise that aliens had been burying assault vehicles for a million years to destroy humans, and yet didn’t bother destroying us a million years ago; 4) the wooden, self gratifying acting of Tom Cruise; 5) aliens have no knowledge of biology and bacteria, and yet they had been surveilling the planet and visiting it for a million years; 6) yet the aliens are super intelligent…

And focus only on the special effects.

This movie was about as good as the last space alien movie done by Tom Cruise’s fellow scientologist. That movie was based on a novel by scientology’s founder.

Both this movie and that movie made about as much sense as each other and both had about the same wretched level of acting and plot development.

The aliens were supposed to be technologically more advanced than mankind, they plained the invasion for maybe milions of years, so how is it they don’t know about basic biology?

I think (although it’s just my personal interpretation) that Wells may have intended that as a warning against hubris. Yes, the Martians are far more technologically advanced than Man, but they’re not omnipotent or immune to error. I believe the implication was that they had wiped out all disease-causing organisms so long ago in their history that they’d completely forgotten about the concept of illness. Thus, the idea that microbes might pose a danger simply never occurred to them.

It also ties in with his interest in evolution, by allowing him to make the point that death is essential for the maintenance of immunity.

At one point, H.G. Wells makes a suggestion that makes slightly more sense than Mars having no microbes: maybe they eliminated all of their microbes, or at least diseases, long ago:

The last salient point in which the systems of these creatures differed from ours was in what one might have thought a very trivial particular. Micro-organisms, which cause so much disease and pain on earth, have either never appeared upon Mars or Martian sanitary science eliminated them ages ago.

(War of the Worlds, Book 2, Chapter 2)

Eliminating microorganisms from a planet is probably impossible (unless you melt all the crust), but if the environmental decay of Mars resulted in the Martians living in artifical environments, they could have long ago made those microbe-free.

The movie’s plot might make some sense if we assume (1) the aliens are from Mars, (2) the surface of Mars became uninhabitable millions of years ago, and the remaining Martians were forced to live in restricted artificial environments, (3) the Martians eliminated microbes from those environments millions of years ago, a fact which they (much later) forgot about or disregarded, (4) the Martians have high technology but very limited population and resources, (5) the remaining resources on Mars were slowly running out, and the Martians planned to move to Earth at their leisure, once they had every variable accounted for and all the infrastructure set up (the buried machines), but (6) the rapid evolution of human technology forced their hand, (7) resulting in a rash attack, a desperate attempt to knock out human civilization while they still had the technological upper hand. Much of this is suggested by Wells in the book, although the movie operates exclusively in Tom Cruise-perspective.

Considering that faster-than-light travel is one big plot device nearly universal in scifi, and FTL is at variance with known science, I think we can give War of the Worlds a wee bit of slack.

Michael Hopkins wrote:

He was certainly a strong Marxist.

H.G. Wells was a Fabian for most of his early adulthood. Though it is often hard to tell the difference, I think he was more of a Socialist than a Marxist even after he left the party. He certainly felt that world government was the only solution to the problems of the day, and wanted social change, but he doesn’t seem to have ever been in favor of revolution. So he’s not really a Marxist or a Anarchist, leaving Socialist as the best descriptive word, IMO.

Chris

And let us not forget the current situation with us humans and smallpox. We cleverly drove smallpox extinct, stopped vaccinating, and promptly forgot about it. The result: in the course of a few decades, smallpox became one of the most dangerous potential terrorist bioweapons around.

So we would have to assume that the Martians had receptors for the disease bacteria, and biochemical pathways that were susceptible to the toxins. Wouldn’t that mean that they had common ancestry with humans? Or maybe they just didn’t have immune systems, in which case they were badly designed.

Bah. No **SPOILERS AHEAD** warnings.

:(

And let us not forget the current situation with us humans and smallpox. We cleverly drove smallpox extinct, stopped vaccinating, and promptly forgot about it. The result: in the course of a few decades, smallpox became one of the most dangerous potential terrorist bioweapons around.

What has killed more people in the last 20 years, smallpox or the smallpox vaccine? How can smallpox be a threat if it’s extinct?

“So we would have to assume that the Martians had receptors for the disease bacteria, and biochemical pathways that were susceptible to the toxins.”

exactly - it’s just as stupid as Independence Day when they load a mac virus into a space computer.

but Wells seems to have described evolution perfectly - “By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth”. The crap about god putting things on the earth is just the idiom of the time. how much attention do you pay to “one nation under god”?

“The aliens were supposed to be technologically more advanced than mankind, they plained the invasion for maybe milions of years, so how is it they don’t know about basic biology? WTF?”

Oh, I don’t know. It seems to me that another, recent invasion undertaken by a mighty power has come-a-cropper against predictable obstacles that were somehow discounted by those who planned, advocated, and executed it. Sometimes you invade with the extra-terrestrials you have, and not the one’s you’d want.

“As everybody knows” ^ I did not know, and now that I do, half of the movie’s suspense is gone. I do not know how to express my frustration.

That is it, I am joining the Discovery Institute

I thought it was a terrific movie, perhaps the best of the year. I think the complaints about the plot and the aliens’ behavior are silly and irrelevant. The film is one dazzling sequence after another. Spielberg is just a master filmmaker.

CT, I think Nick means that smallpox is extinct in the wild, leaving a just a few specimens alive in biowarfare labs. Said protected populations do pose something of a threat.

“What has killed more people in the last 20 years, smallpox or the smallpox vaccine? How can smallpox be a threat if it’s extinct?”

It’s not extinct; the remaining smallpox is contained in controlled research environments, such as CDC laboratories.

Yeah, smallpox is extinct in the wild, but I think Russia and the U.S. each have a stock, and you know the security in Russia is air-tight.

Beyond that, there is always the possibility of a smallpox-infested corpse up in the permafrost in Alaska or something that could re-introduce it.

PS: Sorry about the “spoiler” thing, we don’t do movie reviews on PT much so I forgot. Although it isn’t exactly a secret that the microbes are the heros of War of the Worlds.

PPS: Thanks for posting the radio play.

Nick (Matzke) Wrote:

At one point, H.G. Wells makes a suggestion that makes slightly more sense than Mars having no microbes: maybe they eliminated all of their microbes, or at least diseases, long ago: … Eliminating microorganisms from a planet is probably impossible (unless you melt all the crust), but if the environmental decay of Mars resulted in the Martians living in artifical environments, they could have long ago made those microbe-free.

But how much of this was known in 1898 when the book was first published? You should keep in mind that one of the early science-fiction books and that it was published over 100 years ago. As such, the information within is bound to be dated. Frankly, that’s a problem with all science-fiction. Take a look at some of the sci-fi from the 40s, 50s and 60s. (I’ll wait.)

Oh, good. You’re back. Note the descriptions of the computers. All of them are building-sized machines (just like the early computers) and probably couldn’t do as much as the machine you are viewing this post upon.

It should also be noted that the passage was from the point of view of a character that, clearly, was somewhat uncertain as to the answer. He is postulating a hypothesis.

Considering that faster-than-light travel is one big plot device nearly universal in scifi, and FTL is at variance with known science, I think we can give War of the Worlds a wee bit of slack.

Of course, I agree that War of the Worlds deserves some slack (although not for the reason you suggest). It doesn’t have the fallacy of FTL (even those versions of FTL that have an interesting pseudo-scientific explanation based off of more current scientific theories). It is a story from over 100 years ago, using the science known from that time. Comparing it to what we know now isn’t quite fair to Wells, who did an excellant job. He, along with a few other writers of that age, practically created the genre of science-fiction. It is easy to call his work cliched or dated, but when he wrote those stories the tales were very new. There had not been an alien invasion tale like it. He started it.

Of course, now we see people stealing his concept. One poster here mentioned Independence Day. You could also include 3001 by Arthur C. Clarke and scores of other writers who knew science-fiction’s roots. If the movie had a fault, it was trying to do a modern day version of a century old story (with all of the fallacies that the story has). It seems like old news because, aside from the special effects, it IS old news.

While I believe that Spielburg is a great director, he probably shouldn’t have bothered with this movie. No matter how strong his production is, it will always be compared (and not favorably) to the original work and the first War of the Worlds movie.

So we would have to assume that the Martians had receptors for the disease bacteria, and biochemical pathways that were susceptible to the toxins. Wouldn’t that mean that they had common ancestry with humans? Or maybe they just didn’t have immune systems, in which case they were badly designed.

Ah ha! Wells is ahead of us again:

But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many – those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance – our living frames are altogether immune.

What Wells is saying here is that the Martians were attacked not just by disease bacteria, but by commonplace, normally benign environmental microbes. Think of the diseases that AIDS victims and other immune-compromised individuals get: any old fungus that lives in the dirt will happily eat you alive if you don’t have an immune system. Warm body + lots of liquid + various organic molecules = microbial feeding frenzy. No specialized receptors or toxins required.

“Biochemical pathways” accessible to Earth microbes is tougher to assess. If the Martians shared common ancestry with Earth life, via bacteria transported on rocks sprayed from impacts billions of years ago, we could expect that their basic biochemistry would be similar (DNA, left-handed amino acids, etc.)

But even if the Martians originated independently, they would presumably be carbon- and water-based, would use organic molecules made of chains of CHOPNS atoms, and would probably use many simple molecules that our microbes eat – polyphosphate, sugars, lipids, etc.

It is not a stable position and you need a fairly sophisticated feed-back balancing system to remain upright. Actually, this is true for a normal bipedal stand, too.

You seem to have missed the fact that we have feet. It’s quite easy to make a bipedal pipe cleaner man who stands up just fine without “a fairly sophisticated feed-back balancing system”.

As for three-legged cats and dogs, you have a flexible platform with appendages near three corners. If you do stop-motion studies, you will see that their movement is not anything possible for a tripod that has three legs radiating from the same point.

a tripod that has three legs radiating from the same point

I haven’t seen the film (yet) so didn’t get what the problem was but that design choice is just plain stupid for anything which isn’t poinging around (pogo or jellyfish). Other versions of the martians have had the attachment points at the side. With 3 legs at a central point you’d have to extend them unequally to first tip the centre of gravity more over one or two while relocating the third and then lurch into a new position. You’ve lost a lot of flexibility from angle of application.

After thinking about it for a week, I’ve come to the realization that this war is the “perfect storm” for the One-Down-Husband. The rejected husband, who just doesn’t have what it takes to be a competent mate in this society.

Imagine this disinterested father has the kids this weekend AGAIN. What is the worst possible story he could have for the One-UP Wife, come Sunday afternoon?

This is the story that Cruise dreamed when he fell asleep soon after the kids were deposited on his doorstep. It was really, really horrible.

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on July 14, 2005 11:20 PM.

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